The most evasive of all of the B-O-P luxury compacts has finally revealed itself to me. I’ve had pretty good luck spotting the Buick and Pontiac cousins, but this is the Cutlass holy grail. It seems more fantasy than reality that I’ve finally encountered one of these mythical beings. A bit more on my own personal Summer of Love, but first, a little bit of a backstory.
It wasn’t the intention, but the Buick and Oldsmobile versions of the Y Body Luxury Compacts ended up not as radical as the engineering department had wished for. While the Aluminum V8 was pretty revolutionary, Oldsmobile engineers had envisioned a front wheel drive, medium displacement V6 version. However, timelines, budgets and successfully engineering a radical change for a mass market product put quite a few of the items Oldsmobile engineers wanted on the back burner.
The resulting product shown to the public at the end of 1960 was more refreshing than revolutionary. Just about all of the Oldsmobile virtues (and a few niggling vices) showed up instead of a car 25 years ahead of its time. Chances are if a Front Wheel Drive V6 Oldsmobile F-85 Did show up for 1961, it wouldn’t have been received with the praise of the buying public the Ford Taurus received.
What you did get was a pretty pleasant pint sized Dynamic Eighty Eight. The same quality assembly, not that much less room, the same soft ride. The same marshmallowy handling, and a pint sized version of the befuddled Roto-Hydramatic came in the deal, with glacial shifts between 2nd and 3rd that made a comparable Buick Special with Dual Path Turbine Drive marginally quicker in the dash to 60. However, highway economy in the 20 mpg range was something the Big Oldsmobiles wouldn’t see until the late Seventies.
Like the trend setting Corvair, the coupes came online a few months after the sedans and wagons. As in the Corvair’s case, that meant a bucket seat, console and more powerful halo coupe came along with the deal. The 185 horsepower version of the 215 cubic inch aluminum V8 was pretty heady stuff in the compact market. Falcons and Comets offered at most a dottering 101 horsepower, and Mopar worked offered Hyper-Pak solutions not well suited to everyday living. The only real V8 competition came from the aging Studebaker Lark, or the quarter size larger and dowdier Rambler Classic. The only true competition was the exquisitely trimmed Skylark at Buick, really.
The one reason I can think of these Cutlasses getting lost in the shadows of time is because they really had to fight for attention. There was a fair amount of sibling rivalry to contend with. For enthusiasts at Oldsmobile alone there was the new Jetfire Coupe, and a new F-85/Cutlass Convertible. Nevermind that the concept was repeated 4 times over at other GM divisions in Corvair, Nova, LeMans and Skylark flavors.
While it didn’t spend a lot of time in the spotlight creating a parade float reputation, enough buyers were enamored with the Cutlass experience to cultivate a following of Oldsmobile customers that would come into full blossom as the decade turned. While some 1960s nameplates shined brightly in the beginning, the Cutlass badge slowly crafted a niche in the market place where those in the know wanted to be seen.
In the cover of automotive marketing night, The Cutlass slowly cast itself as a pint sized version of Oldsmobile’s own Starfire. I believe that’s the part of the Cutlass lure: It did have a big brother car to aspire to. The Skylark preceded the Wildcat. The relationship between the LeMans and the Grand Prix is muddled, since the GP was “Ventura” before the name/sex change. The Monza was an anomaly all its own, possibly inspiring the Impala to remember its original mission and to put on the “SS” jewelry.
The Cutlass learned pretty quickly to give the people exactly the exclusivity they want. In a more manageable, affordable package, that is. Sure you did forgo a lot of horsepower, power EVERYTHING and genuine leather. For the savings you got a very nice approximation of that experience with quality materials, with less of an initial blow to your pocket book. Plus, you could bank on continuing savings at the gas pump. The Starfire, in original form at least, burned out at the end of 1966. Was it a Cutlass that stabbed it in the back?
Oldsmobile murder mysteries aside, I’ve become a bit obsessed with this rather original mystery of a 1962 Cutlass. I ran across it on the way to a concert about 3 weeks ago. It’s a local car, as the front license plate frame notes, it was sold new at Fidelity Oldsmobile on Shattuck Avenue. Fidelity Oldsmobile is now Jim Doten Honda, by the way.
It’s been at Motor City Automotive on Shattuck for a solid month now, shuffling from space to space in the lot with no rhyme or reason. I’ve never actually seen the shop open (I never think to come and visit on week days off), so in furtive visits day and night I piece together little mysteries about how this time capsule is taunting me.
What could be wrong? Why aren’t you on the road? There is an obvious answer to that (JPCavanaugh’s mother’s experiences with her 1961 F-85 wagon might be true here), but it’s rare that a car has made it 51 years in this condition not to be readily fixed and put back on the road. Given my Oldsmobile lust, I can only hope a “For Sale” sign appears for an amount feasible for me to make a decision based on lust I’ll never regret.